Concert Review: Carrie Underwood’s Cry Pretty 360 Tour at the Staples Center

A foggy sunset over a field.

On September 12, some of the brightest female stars in current country pop rolled into downtown Los Angeles for the second leg of the Cry Pretty Tour 360. Headlined by Carrie underwood, with support from Maddie and Tae and Runaway June, the show promised a night packed with excellent music and plenty of entertainment.

The Openers

Runaway June kicked off the night, followed by Maddie and Tae. Overall, both performances were great, and definitely left me wanting more. Though I wasn’t at all familiar with Runaway June, I was impressed by the musicianship and could appreciate the songwriting. I was particularly fascinated with how much mileage they were able to get with what seemed like only a few different guitar effect presets.

Maddie and Tae, on the other hand, have been an act who I have followed since they first hit the scene, and I was excited to finally see what they were like live. I was not disappointed. The duo are an excellent example of how just two voices can create a color greater than a single singer alone. Maddie Marlow has a bright, vibrant yellow voice that is complimented perfectly by Tae Dye’s soft, muted pink. When combined during their harmonies, the color is bright enough to cut well through the instrumentation, but has a full, lush tone that can’t be achieved by a single voice. When apart, the two voices could work together for interesting effects. For example, Tae’s repetition of Maddie’s last word during the last couple lines of the chorus in “Friends Don’t” was one of my favorite points where the two were not singing simultaneously. With how much brighter Maddie’s voice is, the effect was like watching a distant reflection of Maddie’s part. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear and see a certain characteristic of Maddie’s voice that I did not expect to be so clear in a live setting. Audibly, there’s a sort of lilt that to me sounds like she always sings with a smile. Visually, this aspect of her voice makes it appear brighter, and gives it a little glimmer.

My favorite moment of this set came during “Fly.” As is inevitable in a venue as large as this, the natural reverb of the room made the music sound and look slightly blurry. The live arrangement began with a guitar part heavily processed with delay, rreverb, and a very slow attack from some sort of volume effect. Such a sound in such a big room created abstract swirls of color that were breathtakingly beautiful. The effect was made even more powerful when the full band kicked in with the instrumental interlude between the first chorus and the second verse, which caused each color to suddenly solidify into more defined shapes.

The Main Event

Once the start of Carrie’s set came around, the anticipation in the venue was at an all-time high. A full band arrangement of “Spinning Bottles” served as her intro. The studio version is beautiful in its minimalism, with the majority of the arrangement consisting of Carrie’s bright yellow voice against a pristine white piano. Here, however, a song that is so serene on the album is set ablaze. The electric guitar solo that replaced the vocal line grew more and more intense with each repetition of the strings that were playing the underlying chord progression. The streaks of fiery reds and oranges from the electric guitar over the wall of blues and greens of the strings made an image that I can only describe as devastatingly beautiful. This was the first of many moments during her set where I felt transfixed by what I was watching and hearing.

Carrie came out swinging, with the first group of songs including some of her more rock-influenced hits such as “Cowboy Casanova,” “Good Girl,” and “Last Name.” With little to no space between each song, and with such a strong intro, I almost felt like I needed to catch my breath by the time there was a pause long enough for Carrie to really speak while introducing the next song after “Last Name.” Despite her saying very little up to that point while not singing, it was clear to me that she had developed so much as a performer since I first saw her at this venue for the 2012 Blown Away tour. Her interactions with the audience, particularly while working the crowd in the middle of a song, seemed so natural and effortless.

The first break from the upbeat material came with “Backsliding,” one of the songs off the Cry Pretty album. The album as a whole made use of a favorite technique of mine, using an ethereal background of heavily processed guitars and synths that take a more defined shape and layout with the impact of a strong transition between segments of a song. I’d seen this effect used so well earlier during Maddie and Tae’s set, and I was delighted to see how well the effect was translated to the live arrangements of the Cry Pretty material. While on the record “Backsliding” primarily makes use of synth drums, the live arrangement had the live drums kick in to mirror the synth backing track during the choruses. The slam of the kick drum and the crack of the snare drum during the chorus made that transition from ethereal to tangible so powerful. Once again, I found myself transfixed! This was also by far the best sounding live snare drum I’ve ever heard, which says a lot about the skills of the tour’s crew and musicians who can produce such an incredible sound in the unforgiving acoustics of a sports venue.

My next favorite moment came during “Drinking Alone,” which opened up with a jazzy piano and sax duet inspired by “Careless Whisper.” Later in the song, both the sax and lead guitar parts supplemented Carrie’s voice, filling in the overdubbed vocal parts from the record. The arrangement of the parts and how they moved and intertwined somehow managed to seem equal parts soulful and flirty. The use of the sax in particular was a nice touch, with it being a shade darker than Carrie’s bright yellow voice, therefore keeping some semblance to the overdubs on the record.

Later in the show, we were treated to a brief departure from the full band arrangements with a handful of excerpts from some of Carrie’s earlier material. The songs included “Temporary Home,” “See You Again,” “I Know You Won’t,” and a “This is Just a Dream” and “Dream On” mash-up. The set began with a stripped rendition of “Temporary Home” accompanied only by piano and guitar. “See You Again” brought in the rest of the band by the end of the chorus. “I Know You Won’t” picked up just before the fiery guitar solo, which set up the band for the big finale of the trip down memory lane. An excerpt from “Just a Dream” blended into the end of “Dream On,” complete with the famous octave leap at the end which Carrie nailed to the delight of everyone in the room.

Things immediately toned down again, with a full performance of “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” This was followed by “The Bullet” off the Cry Pretty album, a song that serves as commentary on the prevalence of gun violence in our culture. Though the song is not overtly political, I was still surprised that such heavy subject matter was brought up during a live set. Still, Carrie handled this with as much care as one would need to perform and record such a song. Instead of making a bold political statement, the song merely gives us a glimpse into the life of a family impacted by gun violence. In doing so, the song brings the listener’s focus to the issues rarely discussed in popular culture regarding gun violence; what happens as”the bullet keeps on going.” Between these two songs, Carrie was able to demonstrate the softer side of her voice that comes out when she’s telling another’s story. The rise and fall of the chorus melody for “The Bullet” also showcased the sheer skill Carrie has with her own voice. Her transition from her lower register to her upper register and back with each line of the chorus looked and sounded flawless and effortless.

This was followed by several more songs that used that ethereal to tangible affect I described: “Something in the Water,” “Low,” and “Kingdom.” “Kingdom” in particular was a favorite, as it was second only to “Backsliding” for how much of a contrast there was once the transition kicked in.

Carrie then invited Maddie and Tae and Runaway June back on for a medley honoring women of country music. Some of the songs included in the tribute were “Stand by Your Man,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “9 to 5,” and many more. My favorite was “She’s in Love with the Boy,” since Carrie’s voice was such a similar shade of yellow as that of Trisha Yearwood from the original record that I seriously felt like I was watching a young Trisha Yearwood performing the song at its peak.

The set ended with”Before He Cheats,” which was then followed up by an encore for “Cry Pretty” and “Love Wins.” The intro to “Cry Pretty” was one of my favorite visual moments. It opened with just a muted guitar part and some light Hammond organ chords running through a Leslie rotary effect on slow. The swirling gray of the organ was like fog, with its tendrils curling around the flickering light of the guitar part, as well as Carrie’s voice once she reappeared. “Love Wins” ended the night, an unexpected but nice detour away from the expected end of a concert on a high note. Sometimes going out with a whisper can be as powerful as going out with a bang, and ending with “Love Wins” demonstrated this perfectly.

Overall, the night felt really well put together. The opening sets felt a little short, but they were so good they left me wanting more. The headlining set, on the other hand, was nearly two hours long. But despite its length, it felt like it went by in a flash. Those who have followed Carrie from the start will most likely not be disappointed over their favorite song not being included in the set. Somehow, the set list managed to cram nearly the entire Cry Pretty album and almost every one of her major hits from the beginning of her career into one night, and I can honestly say I left feeling like I got way more than my money’s worth.

Tour Info

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